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Gamification in Education: Epic Win, or Epic Fail?

By: Kristen Bourgault

Have you ever felt that each move you made in life was part of a bigger game? These days it just may be, as a trend referred to as “gamification” has swept industries as diverse as marketing, travel, and even education. While turning everything into a game sure seems like fun, it’s not as easy as it sounds. This article will explore the trend towards gamification, as well as some of its criticism.


“Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” Albert Einstein

Gamification is a strategy by which ordinary processes are infused with principles of motivation and engagement inspired by game theory. Or as Wikipedia would say, “Gamification is the use of game design techniques and mechanisms to solve problems and engage audiences.”

While games have been a popular activity throughout history, the Internet and social networking have inspired a whole new wave of players actively engaged in daily gameplay. The free, browser based virtual farm game, Farmville, boasts over 80 million active users per month as players earn virtual money and level up to compete against their friends. World of Warcraft, an online role playing game, claims 10.3 million subscribers as of November 2011, and that number continues to grow.

What is it that attracts so many people to become so deeply engaged in these virtual environments? If video games are revered as one of the most highly engaging activities of the 21st century, then shouldn’t we try to capture elements from video games, and apply them to teaching and learning?


Gamification, at a meaningful level, requires a complete restructuring of activities, assessments and feedback mechanisms. It involves a true reworking of a course from soup to nuts. Many game developers would also insist that it cannot be achieved without a trained game developer at the helm of the decision-making process. The very best and most engaging games employ a strong narrative structure to carry the participants through the game.

Game design isn’t just a technological craft. It’s a twenty-first-century way of thinking and leading. And gameplay isn’t just a pastime. It’s a twenty-first-century way of working together to accomplish real change.” Jane McGonigal

What elements of video games can you leverage in your own course design in order to increase learner engagement and motivation? Jane McGonigal, a leading researcher and voice in video game theory, breaks it down to the essentials: “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.”

But wait! Isn’t that basic course design right there? Identifying a straightforward and achievable goal, developing rules for conduct, behavior, and progress through a course, setting up your mechanisms for feedback and assessment, and finally, opening the doors to all of the ‘voluntary participants.’ If these are the components we expect to include in the courses we develop, is it too far of a stretch to imagine how gamification might be utilized to create a more engaging, learner-centered experience?

Games address things we already know improve education – increased collaboration, problem-based learning, constructive feedback, mentoring. You can utilize these teaching strategies without having to transform your entire course into Candyland. However, keeping an eye on the methods used to engage players in games and perhaps even playing a few yourself, can only open up new possibilities in structure, feedback and pace for your courses.


Is gamification really the magical process that so many believe it to be? Many critics would argue against it, saying this process merely cheapens and distracts from the learner’s experience.

Look around you – elements of video games are creeping into many of your daily activities. Have you booked a flight recently on Trip Advisor? Commented on a Huffington Post article? New ways of “earning badges” and “unlocking achievements” are cropping up every day. But does the ability to earn a badge automatically increase our engagement in an activity?

Game designer and consultant Margaret Robertson doesn’t think so. In a recent blog post speaking out against the term ‘gamification’, Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking that thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game.”

“Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.” Margaret Robertson

You may be tempted to jump on board and trade your grades in for badges and call it a game. But this simple act doesn’t dramatically change the learner’s experience. Take some time to really understand what makes a good game great. Create a compelling narrative to pull your students through the course. Set up mentoring and collaboration opportunities such as those you encounter in games to enable learners to share what they know. And frequently chime in with feedback. Use those badges to chart progress, but meaningful instructor feedback is what will truly propel the learner forward.

“Gamification, by contrast, doesn’t rely on internal motivation. Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated – at least at the beginning – and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.” Elizabeth Corcoran


Do video games have much to teach us about how to create dynamic and engaging environments? Most definitely! There is so much we can learn about motivation from game theory. But at the same time we must also approach gamification with caution, understanding that it is a complex, time consuming process and not the quick fix some of us may be looking for.

In my next article I will talk more about that process, by sharing a game I created to infuse fun and adventure into a traditionally boring internal technology training workshop.

You have unlocked the “I read this article” achievement.



Cashmore, P. (2010). Farmville surpasses 80 million users. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2010/02/20/farmville-80-million-users/

Corcoran, E. (2010). The ‘gamification’ of education. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/2010/10/28/education-internet-scratch-technology-gamification_2.html

Gamification. (2012). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification

Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Robertson, M. (2010, October 6). Can’t play, won’t play. [Blog entry]. Retrieved from http://www.hideandseek.net/2010/10/06/cant-play-wont-play/

1 Comment »

  1. […] Games also provide us with the potential result of temporary failure.  This emotional fear decreases the more we play games, therefore improving our chances for success.  Games therefore help us to practice flexible optimism, an emotion which Randolph Nesse a professor of evolutionary medicine at the University of Michigan believes that our happiness depends on, and has depended on it since the earliest days of human civilisation.  Game playing also helps us in our methods of problem solving, as we are provided with a safe and familiar environment to play out all possible solutions and discover their consequences.  It is for this reason that Albert Einstein stated: “Games are the most elevated form of investigation”.  […]

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